Skate punk is something taken seriously in the desert. We're always looking to finish an argument about what constitutes a good slab of skate punk wax.
Phoenix has a long history with both skateboarding and the music most closely associated with it. Skate punk (or skate rock, which many see as interchangeable terms), is any music created by skateboarders and/or a provider of the sufficient inspiration to risk life and limb on four wheels and a deck of wood.
Local heroes Jodie Foster's Army (JFA) debuted in 1981 and are considered by some to have started the whole thing. However, JFA actually does have peers that predate the Phoenix quartet in terms of first gigs and recordings so we won't coronate them as the original skate punks just yet. For many of the progenitors of the genre, the sound is equal parts of the following bands: The Sonics, The Ventures, The Who (specifically the early '70s Isle of Wight-era Who), Black Sabbath, Ramones, and Devo.
The popularity of skateboarding on a national and international level has grown steadily since the mid-'80s, but it has been a popular sport in our "but it's a dry heat" corner of the globe since the 1970s. It is also safe to say we no longer need to preface the word "sport" with "alternative" or "extreme" in 2015, as skateboarding finally has matured enough to no longer be seen as a fad or anomaly in the sports world. To put it in perspective in another way, we're just a little over a year away from having a 40-year-old skate shop in greater Phoenix, as Scottsdale's Sidewalk Surfer will celebrate its ruby anniversary in 2017.
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Many local skateboarding legends, some of whom also are talented musicians, got their start riding in pay-to-play skate parks such as High Roller in Sunnyslope or Skate in the Shade in Mesa. Unfortunately, these parks didn't last nearly as long as the music they helped spawn. Perhaps the demise of the skate parks helped bring on the sense of urgency and live-for-the-moment attitude that is so important in skate punk music. Could this music be the offspring of a twisted coupling? Skate punk is the crossroads where the burgeoning early-'80s punk scene met an often misunderstood sport being forced to go underground.
The term "skate punk" itself also is polarizing. Though many people involved in the skateboarding and music worlds might say they coined the term, it probably was a former employee of Thrasher magazine, the renowned Morizen "Mofo" Foche, a skateboarder, photographer, producer, and Drunk Injuns singer, who first might have used it, says JFA singer Brian Brannon.
Mofo put together the first of many Thrasher-sponsored skate rock compilations. They usually were released on cassette and featured the best of the best in the skate rock world, and they were essential listening for skateboarders everywhere.
What makes the term even more difficult to define, though, is the multitude of great bands whose music is great to skate to yet who wouldn't be considered skate punk (or skate rock or even punk rock).
Essentially, anything that inspires a skateboarder to go out and skate is skate rock. It could be punk rock made by a group of musicians who skated to get to the studio to record, or it could be experimental music made by Tibetan monks who've never seen a skateboard.
So it boils down to this simple truth: The influence of music on skateboarders or even skate punk itself is vast, but for an album to be a truly classic skate punk record, it has to meet just one criterion:
The band must participate in skate culture, not just spectate.
For example, Suicidal Tendencies is much more a genre-defying band than a true skate punk band. The group certainly was punk. And it embraced skate culture, but only to an extent that it might simply have hoped to profit off skateboarding (but that's another story completely). Perhaps the members skated — a benchmark of being a skate punk or skate rock band — but Suicidal Tendencies easily could be classified as a rap-metal act.
Take it from no less an authority than Mike Vallely, a pro skater who also dabbles in the music world as a member of Revolution Mother, Good for You, and the most recent incarnation of Black Flag.
"I'd say that at least one founding member better be able to at least grind a pool, ollie up a curb, or truly have a passion for skateboarding as a participant — or, man, what a weak gimmick," Vallely says.
Skate punk, now inching close to being 40 years old, certainly touches multiple age groups, as well. Of course, it is awesome knowing there are generations of skaters who ride to tunes they know and love by artists who may not be on a list like the one that follows.
Admittedly, this particular list features older bands, groups that created the genre and laid the groundwork for how it sounds today. The newest record on the list is from 1986, and it probably is the list's most obscure entry. But that's okay. In the early days, skateboarding embraced the obscure, especially when skaters sought out a new skate spot, be it a new ditch or a backyard swimming pool that either already had been drained or could be.
It also is important, in these instances, to include the voices who made the music in the first place, to strengthen any argument claiming to represent the best of the best in any genre. Their answers had zero influence on the creation of this list, but there were places where ideas overlapped. The similarities and differences among the major players' definitions and their roles in the genre's formation is what makes a list like this so great.
It is universally acknowledged that any music that makes you want to go out and skate or push yourself beyond your limits is good skate rock. As much as the music has evolved (or in the case of some skate punk, devolved) so has the equipment used in skateboarding.
Not only are there more shapes and sizes of boards to ride, but wheels, bearings, and trucks also have gotten better. We also need to tip our collective cap to the overall improvement of safety gear, which has helped older riders continue to participate well into their 50s and 60s.
It's become typical to see gray hair at Phoenix-area skate parks on weekend mornings. It's not just kids who participate, but their parents who tear it up and even show the kids a thing or two about style and, yes, music.
Like skateboard equipment, the portable music player also has evolved.
It is no coincidence that skate punk started to take off around the same time the boombox became accessible to teenagers. Early boomboxes were too expensive for many teens and young adults to consider taking to empty swimming pools and local ditches. The decrease in boomboxes' prices coincided with the availability of more punk rock.
It was not uncommon to hear aggressive tunes blasting wherever skateboarders gathered. Today, the modern version of the boombox — the MP3 player — is seen and heard at local skate spots, stoking sessions with skate rock.
Though underground skate spots — including backyard pools, parking garages, and backyard ramps — still are being used today, greater opportunities exist for less-adventurous skaters to take out their aggression on safer (from a legal standpoint) terrain. Had as many public skate parks existed in metro Phoenix in the '80s and '90s as do now, the blend of genuine angst and joy of creativity found in the early JFA recordings probably would not be obvious.
"True skate punk has a certain element of rawness born from the outlaw aspects of skateboarding, like sneaking into abandoned backyard bowls and jumping fences to hit cement drainage ditches. It was born from the ass end of the '70s/early '80s, when pop rock was all you heard on the radio, and the overplaying of bands like Journey, Boston, and the Eagles were a guaranteed buzzkill for any shredding session," says JFA's Brannon, who grew up riding all the great skate spots the Valley of the Sun had to offer and shredding many, many empty pools.
"Everything kind of happened simultaneously, and it sort of just fed off each other. The whole energy behind [skating and punk] was so strong. It was like a wave that just took off. Everybody just grabbed hold," says Mike Palm, singer/guitarist of Agent Orange. "I don't pretend to be an expert on skate rock . . . But certainly there are certain bands and styles of music that lend [themselves] to it. For all the readers, even if they're totally unaware of all that stuff, it's not like they have to go to some crappy record store and dig through stacks of records. The research isn't that difficult. I urge them to take some time and check things out, maybe go backward a little bit and get some perspective on things."
Vallely finds the whole idea of labeling music silly.
"The thing about 'skate rock' is, it seems kinda strange to me to reduce a band down to 'skate rock' or for that to be the premise of a band. I mean, I just can't imagine saying, 'We're going to be a skate rock band,'" he says.
Typically, the bands who are part of the skate punk/skate rock scene are both skaters and musicians, although they might identify more as one or the other. Every band on this list has members who skate (or skated). In these desert parts, for example, it is common knowledge that at least one member of JFA did a little skateboarding at Phoenix-area skate parks when the band came to town for its September 26 concert at ThirdSpace.
But let's get to the list. These are in no particular order, but we've numbered them anyway. Because who doesn't like numbers?
10. Live at Raul's — Big Boys/The Dicks (1980): This split album with Texas' the Dicks is simply a classic skate rock record. "We were mostly skating to funk and soul when we skated. That's why we ended up playing what we played," says Tim Kerr, guitarist for seminal 1980s Austin band Big Boys. Definitely the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other band in this list, Big Boys shredded on the stage but were not a typical punk band by any stretch of the imagination. The band constantly challenged any and all societal norms, especially the notion of macho sexuality.
Longtime skater Michael Cornelius, original bass player of JFA (and current Father Figures guitarist) says, "When JFA would tour, we would see which bands actually would show up to skate with us. Big Boys did." Known for their confrontational and often over-the-top performances, Big Boys called it quits in 1984. If you have a Big Boys deck issue by Zorlac Skateboard in the 1980s, consider yourself one of the lucky few. (Note: The Dicks' songs on this split are also stellar.)
9. My Dad Butch — Drunk Injuns (1983): This album rocks your face off. From opener "Question Authority" to the final track, "Pumpshank," it is pure skate punk aggression from your favorite masked skate band. Drunk Injuns, which shared members with fellow San Jose skate punk outfit Los Olvidados, wore homemade spirit masks resembling Native American ghost warriors during the group's live performances. In 2002, the Alternative Tentacles record label (founded in the 1970s by original Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra) released a compilation of various Drunk Injuns recordings called From Where the Sun Now Stands, I Will Fight No More, Forever, a must-have for any skate punk fan. Recently, Drunk Injuns performed in San Francisco as part of the Punk Rock Sewing Circle's 40th Anniversary of Punk Rock show in September. So there's still hope of seeing the group perform again.
8. Minor Threat — Minor Threat (1984): This is an album you can't help moving to, especially if you have a skateboard under your feet. Frontman Ian Mackaye, later of the critically acclaimed band Fugazi, has been a vocal proponent of skateboarding for as long as he's been in the punk spotlight. Minor Threat's combination of raw punk guitar and Mackaye's in-your-face vocals are sublime. The Washington, D.C., group has been copied many times over the years, but few bands ever have lived up to the standards these guys set in the early '80s. Clocking in at just over nine minutes, the eight songs on this album are amazing. Standout tracks include "Seeing Red," "Screaming at a Wall," and the title track. Minor Threat didn't last long, but the legacy of this groundbreaking group lives on.
7. Cows and Beer — Die Kreuzen (1983): Cows and Beer is frantic and relentless. It's like riding a good set of downhill banks: The faster you go, the more painful the bail will be. The pain is bearable because of the thrill of the ride. Six songs in just under seven minutes, the EP is faster than some local Phoenix skaters' epic bowl runs, designed as karmic payback for the "snakes" who cut into the flow and steal your run if you pause for even a second. Even though they were from the land of Fonzie, Lenny, and Squiggy, Milwaukee's Die Kreuzen skated, and Cows and Beer was re-released by Beer City Records (a label that also makes skateboards) in 2014.
6. Skate for the Devil — Boneless Ones (1986): Boneless Ones opened for the Circle Jerks in 1986 at bygone Phoenix venue Mason Jar, and they were incredible. Their songs were about skateboarding. At very least, they seemed to be about skateboarding, and in 1986, there wasn't much more important in a teenage skateboarder's life than punk and skating.
Similar to the way Big Boys stick out on this list, the Boneless Ones are different because their metal-infused punk is heavier than that of their peers. Think DRI (another great band to skate to) meets local heroes Sacred Reich. This album references Satan a lot so followers of boards and Beelzebub will be in heaven (get it?). The Boneless Ones, who called the San Francisco area home, featured skateboarding guitarist Luke Skeel, who later went on to play in Verbal Abuse. Maybe someday they'll catch the reunion bug, but in the meantime, the record easily can be found on the Internet. Thank you, Al Gore, for enabling future generations of skate punk fans to tap into the genre's history.
5. No Hidden Messages — The Faction (1983): No Hidden Messages is a great slab of skate rock from San Jose, California, and the Faction had the street cred from the get-go, with pro skater Steve Caballero on bass guitar. Each member of the Faction skated, and according to guitarist Adam "Bomb" Segal, the group listened to Social Distortion's debut LP, as well as records by Germs, Generation X, Adolescents, and even Metallica's Kill 'em All when they got their skate on.
"We were certainly all skaters and met at the skate park," Segal says. "Three of us still skate, though I'm just a neighborhood cruiser these days." In many ways, the Faction played no-frills punk rock in the straight-ahead one-two-fuck-you approach, and the group banged out its tight songs with a staunchly anti-establishment stance and accomplished musicianship. The music has more than stood the test of time, and it certainly still is worthy of modern-day skate sessions.
4. Living in Darkness — Agent Orange (1981): Agent Orange is best appreciated in concert, where guitarist/singer Mike Palm and his bandmates truly bring the rock, but this is another example of skate punk at its finest. Chock-full of goodness, Living in Darkness contains one classic song after another. There truly is not a bad song on the album. Says Black Flag's Vallely: "Agent Orange are just a great band. I discovered them from a skate video in the mid-'80s, but they were and are so much more than a 'skate rock' band. Maybe that's their bread and butter, but it seems limiting to me. They wrote such great songs, have such a great sound. They should have much greater exposure." He's right, and it doesn't hurt they are really nice guys from Orange County, California. According to Palm, Agent Orange is scheduled to perform at Tempe's Yucca Tap Room in March.
3. Keep Laughing — Rich Kids on LSD (1985): Scooter Buell, who ran Malt Soda Records and released one of RKL's final albums, says, "Busting out of the Southern California wake of the Bones Brigade was the progression of kids who traded in their bicycles for skate decks and never looked back. RKL was one of those groups of children that did this before forming their band. They embodied the skater attitude of riding during the day and partying at night."
Many locals remember a legendary RKL show at Prisms in Chandler in 1986, and the songs on Keep Laughing truly are inspiring. In more ways than inspiring them to hop on a board and drop in a bowl, RKL had attitude to spare. Melodic at times and completely insane at others, Keep Laughing is classic skate punk played by dudes who dropped a lot of acid and skated hard. Another great record of theirs worthy of checking out is RKL's double-vinyl classic Greatest Hits Double Live in Berlin. Rich Kids on LSD originally began in Montecito, California, and there's even a rumor that No Country for Old Men star Josh Brolin, stepson of Barbra Streisand, was involved in the early days of the band.
2. Don't Be Mistaken — Agression (1983): Talk about killer live shows. Oxnard, California's Agression played Phoenix several times during the '80s, and the shows always were treats. "Intense Energy" is one of the all-time best skate punk songs, but , really, the whole record it's on is great. Check out the album cover on this one as well, as it features a great Glen E. Friedman shot of a young dude (Arthur Lake) riding the "hip" of a bowl to perfection. Singer Mark Hickey and guitarist Henry Knowles died in the early 2000s, but their legacy lives on, even if a lot of younger skaters don't seem to know about the band yet. With new members, Agression still plays the occasional gig. The lineup still includes bassist "Big" Bob Clark, who cast as intimidating a shadow as anybody in punk.
1. Valley of the Yakes — JFA (1983): Phoenix skate punks young and old make no secret about their love of JFA. All of JFA's records, especially the early ones, are classics, but Valley of the Yakes gets the nod because it includes the song "Skateboard."
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You just can't get more classic skate rock, though, than Valley of the Yakes. The dudes in JFA still skate and still rock as hard as ever, and they always have embraced their role in the skateboard/punk rock world. "I think JFA came up with something original in that regard, and that has a cool factor all its own. They really put something visually strong across. A statement. It's theirs in my mind," Vallely says.
Playing punk rock and riding a skateboard are not necessarily synonymous, but they do go hand in hand. Each one pushes the other a little bit further, a little bit faster, until the end of the run or the end of the song. The great thing is, all you have to do is wait a few seconds (or for the older skaters, a few minutes) and another song and another run is right in front of you.
Here's to the next batch of intense, energetic, and classic skate punk waiting to be recorded. Next time you think about hitting a local skate spot, turn up your favorite tunes and take a run for late, great skater and musician Gerry "Skatemaster Tate" Hurtado, who left for the big ditch in the sky on October 13, 2015.
Editor's note: Tom Reardon is a member of local skate punk band The Father Figures, which features former JFA bassist Michael Cornelius on guitar.