Punk Rock in Phoenix: A Brief, but Brilliant History.

by Frank Ippolito

Growing up in Paradise Valley, I was definitely in the minority in high school, along with my friends, standing outside during lunch under the “smokers’ tree”, dressed in Ramones and Clash T-shirts, blaring the Meat Puppets as loud as we could, drawing stares from the instructors, students and security guards. Of course, we were across the street, off school property, so there wasn’t much they could do and we loved it.

And while we did venture into Phoenix to catch a punk show, we weren’t really “in the scene”. More like active participants who were just outside the ropes, but still fighting for our identities within the social circle we orbited.

Misfits, Social Distortion, The Ramones, The Clash, and JFA was the soundtrack leading up to and out of high school for me and, throughout the years, even though my own music varies quite differently, I’ve always remained a lover of punk rock, (I forgive you for the recent past, Mike Ness). I’m also a lover of history, and during a recent commute to work I passed Madison Square Garden and it reminded me of the punk shows I’ve seen there – and I realized I didn’t know the real history behind Punk rock in Phoenix.

So I started searching out people who were in the Punk scene back then and before I ventured into the hall. Much to my surprise, I found a handful of people who were there – I mean, like, there from the beginning – and I started to ask questions. This is not necessarily a complete history of Punk in Phoenix, but a larger snapshot than I, or maybe you, have ever heard before.

Side 1:

The Consumers

Rewind

The year was 1978, and while London and New York already boasted legendary punk movements, there was a small, but ferocious punk scene right here in Phoenix.

No, really, there was. Honest.

As the story goes, it was a punk band called, The Consumers, who broke the punk cherry in their first show at, of all places, The Phoenix Zoo, on “new talent audition” night. The performance stunned the judges and the crowd, so much so, the band was promptly attacked by the angry crowd and their equipment trashed.

“As a punk rocker in Phoenix, in ’78, we were beat up on a routine basis,” that from Ron Rexless, singer of the Mighty Sphincter and one of the godfathers of Punk in Phoenix, “but I loved it. I loved the scene, the music, the ethos. The Phoenix bands took what was out there and put their own stamp on it.”

Robin Rexless, Ron’s wife, spent her early youth selling 45 records in her family’s record store in Phoenix, and had the opportunity to meet most of bands when they came in and posted their show fliers in the store.

“In the early days, there were only a few places a punk band could play,” said Ms. Rexless, who happens to be an historian of local Punk and author of Phoenix: Under the radar and out of the ashes, Punk Rock in Phoenix 1975-85, “and you couldn’t get a gig unless you played covers. And if you did get a show, and started to play “your” music, needless to say, the jocks and cowboys didn’t appreciate it and then it was run as fast as you can.”

In late 1978, the Consumers packed their gear, probably in a hurry, and left for LA, but paved the way for local punk bands like Jodie Foster’s Army (JFA), The Deez, Don Bolles, The Feederz, The Meat Puppets, Triple AAA Gardners, and of course, The Mighty Sphincter.

“And you just didn’t have “Punk” rock, per say, there was Jazz Punk, Thrash Punk, Skate Punk, Country Punk,” Ron added with a gleam in his eye.

The latter, “Country Punk”, I would describe more as “Desert Punk”, would be the defining sound by one of the few bands that played the Hate House and made it out of Phoenix, toured extensively, and tasted success – The Meat Puppets.

“Those bands, man, they were they trailblazers in a town that was filled with cover bands and “cowboys” –
and Victory Acres, there were so many great bands, all coming out of Phoenix, crazy right?” said Matt Spastic, Phoenix native, lead singer and guitarist for the Phoenix Punk band Button Struggler.

“It was 2 bucks. All ages. 2 bucks to see 10 bands. It was a very tight scene and we all came out to support each other. Can’t do that in today’s world. But it would be nice.” Rexless added.

Punk in Phoenix finds a home

Small clubs like The Salty Dog and The Pit in Sunnyslope, Mr. Lucky and The Temple, were popular punk venues. And the bands would rent out places like the VFWs, Fireman’s Hall and put on their own shows.

But none quite like infamous Hate House. Purchased by the late artist, Rick Bertoni, the Hate House, a three bedroom home, was located on Palm and 3rd Avenue and it became the center of the punk universe in Phoenix.

Many of the most popular punk bands of the time, like Minor Threat, Black Flag, Violent Femmes, and more would make the trip into what is now the Willow District before and after their shows to party and check-out the local bands who would be playing there and just hang.

“The Hate House was the one place where those bands could go and be themselves,” said Robin Rexless, “People have told me Rick nailed the front door shut so you had to get in through the front windows and the house shows were crazy – local bands like Killer Pussy and the Meat Puppets would be playing and, when a touring band would show-up, the place would go nuts – it was a little slice of ‘Punk Heaven’, actually.”

She even recalled a time when a couple young kids from Seattle, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic (yep, that Kurt and Krist) made it a point to drop in just to check out The Meat Puppets.

“Man, Kurt loved that band,” she said.

“I really miss Rick,” Rexless interjected, “not only did he give us a place to play, he gave us a place to live, hang out – in my eyes, he truly was the patron of Punk – the Andy Warhol of Phoenix.”

This “Golden Age” of Punk, as the Rexlesses called it, continued throughout the early 80s. JFA, Sun City Girls, Asses of Evil, Anarchy Taco, and Father Figures all hit their stride. All drew huge crowds and developed a following that even the touring bands rolling through Phoenix could envy.

Spastic was one of those who regularly attended shows at Mad Garden and The Party Gardens and it was in 1984 when a friend of Spastic’s gave him a tape that would change his life.

“I got this tape with bands like the Gang Green, The Minutemen, Misfits, Sons of Ishmael, and it was exactly what I needed because the radio was filled with fucking acts like Huey Lewis and the News,” he said. “And those Punk bands played here and kicked some serious ass – from then on I knew exactly what I wanted to do – play music.”

While the disco and hair bands dominated the music scene, there were still a few punk bands in Phoenix like The Meat Puppets, Insurrection, and others, and promoters like Tony Victor, who were trying to keep that energy of the 70s alive and well.

The Meat Puppets performing at Mad Garden in March of ’83

Madison Square effen Garden

The original Madison Square Garden was opened in 1928 and was located on 7th Avenue and Van Buren. It was the site of the earliest punk shows but was closed thanks to a riot that occurred after a wrestling match. Then, Tony Victor, owner of Placebo Records, the sole punk label in Phoenix back then, started promoting shows out of no-nothing brick and mortar venue on 37th Street and Van Buren, calling it Madison Square Garden, after the original, or Mad Garden, as it was affectionately known its fans.

Used in the early 70’s as a wrestling venue instead of a stage, bands played between the ropes in the
wrestling ring in the building’s center. Singers, guitarists, and drummers would bounce ever so slightly during their sets thanks to the padded floor that was designed to give-way for wrestlers. One night, after a wrestler flew over the ropes and onto the floor, the original owner installed a cage that encircled the ring – this cage became the perfect prop for singers, like Henry Rollins, to climb and get the crowd foaming at their collective mouths.

“The 70s, the early 80s, the Hate House, do-it-yourself shows, that was inspired and passionate. Artistic, really. But then, well, in my opinion, the scene went corporate.” Robin said with a sadness in her voice.

In the end, the tsunami tidal wave of pop music was just too big to hold back and Mad Garden closed its doors in January, 1984, with a full-house, frenetic goodbye gig featuring the locals  JFA along with TSOL and the Crucifucks.

The 90s saw the formation of Jimmy Eat World, Authority Zero, Andrew Jackson Jihad, and of course others – all excellent bands. In fact, Andrew Jackson Jihad is one of my favorites, but again, did it reach the scene reach the zenith of its predecessors? It’s hard to say it did.

“The 90s, well…” Robin Rexless paused for a moment and reflected on that period. It was the kind of pause someone takes when they’re about to be the bearer of bad news.

I asked why?

“I think the newer bands deserted their roots. You know? The concert scene and spots in shows were getting more and more competitive, and the shows were more expensive so the kids couldn’t get into the venue. So they played what they thought would get them a spot on the bill. I can’t fault them for that, but…” she continued, “Heck, I remember bumming a couple bucks off of people to get into see the show at Mad Gardens when I was like, 12, ha. In the 90s, well, tell me what kid can come up with the 10 or 12 bucks to get in to see a show these days. Let alone, an all ages show.”

Compared to the 70s and 80s, the 90s punk community didn’t thrive as much. And although the concert scene was humming along with touring bands like Social Distortion, Blast and The Adolescents coming through town, the local scene was fragmented.

I would wager a couple of reasons why.

Considering that not only was Phoenix growing as a city, and “suburbs” like Tempe and Mesa were spawning punk bands, the venues were now further and further apart, whereas before, the spectacle, the shows, the bands, were concentrated in a very small area. Add to that, hardcore that was being led by late 90s bands like Blessthefall and Job for a Cowboy was transitioning into death metal, metalcore, and post-hardcore. In short, there was a lot of music, but maybe not enough good music.

Matt Spastic puts an exclamation on the above point.

“In the 90s, the scene was more splintered. There are more offshoots of the Punk genre and way more bands. And nowadays, you can find a show almost any night of the week.  It wasn’t like that back in the day. Also, back then being punk was frowned upon. Looking like a punk meant being chased down the street and probably getting into a fight. Punk used to mean doing your own thing, now there’s a store in every mall that sells punk rebellion to kids at $20 a shirt. And, now, bands try to fit into a genre of their liking and most of the bands in a certain genre sound the same. Which, in my opinion, is exactly what Punk was rallying against.”

I’m going to save you and me recollecting the early 2000s, no seriously, I am. It was as if the Phoenix Punk rock community drew its collective breath, thought for a moment, well, a decade, and decided to show its teeth. Again.

Los (Fukn) Ramirez

Side 2:

Play

I spoke to three current punk bands here in the Valley: The Venomous Pinks, one of the only all-girl Punk bands in Phoenix, Monty O’Blivion from Manual Sex Drive, and Los (Fukn) Ramirez, a Glendale band that sings in English and Spanish, all who are all doing their best to raise the bar when it comes to punk rock in Phoenix.

What are you taking from the past and infusing it into your music?

The Venomous Pinks: The Donnas, The Runaways, Joan Jett, TSOL, Black Flag.

Monty: Howlin’ Wolf, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Sex Pistols

Los (Fukn) Ramirez: Nirvana, The Ramones, Offspring and a bunch of Spanish Punk, haha

How do you feel about the current community?

Gaby Kaos, The Pinks guitarist/vocalist: The scene is coming back alive, slowly, and we are here to make it big again, and that’s something we want to be a part of.

LFR: Right now its really exciting, we got more people coming to the shows, supporting the music and a lot more bands are playing, too.

Monty: The Phoenix scene has been divided. But now we have bands like TOAD and Sons of Providence uniting Goth and Metal, Grave Danger working punks and greasers into a frenzy, underground is coming back.

Manual Sex Drive

What about your generation, does it feel the same sense of struggle, anti-everything as previous ones?

Drea Doll, the Pink’s guitarist/vocalist: There’s a lot to be pissed off about out there. What we struggle with being seen as equals in a male dominated Punk rock scene. But because of that it ignites a fire inside the three of us that says, F U! I can do this just as good as any dude can.

LFR: We don’t consider ourselves as anti-everything as we used to. At one point we hated everything, fuck this and fuck that, but it’s not about anarchy anymore, it is about the music and making a difference through it.

Monty: My answer is, “yes, but”… The difference between then and now, today teenagers seem to resort to escapism, or even apathy. Hard to create a movement like that. Let’s face it, they’d rather sit around watching the X-Factor then going out to watch live music. So, the struggle will always be there, but the community at-large is distracted.

Julie, The Pink’s drummer: Yep, the struggle is there, but there is so much more to sing about. I think we connect with people and capture their attention because we aren’t your typical band up there doing what everyone else is doing.

Drea: And Gabby’s boobies.

The Venomous Pinks

And, how close are bands these days?

Monty: It’s a pretty tight-knit community. I know our band makes sure we stay connected – especially when promoters come calling with fucking “Battle of the bands” shows. We protect the newbie bands, and get the bands to boycott those types of pay-to-play shows and send the vultures packing.

TVP: Yeh, for the most part, we think so. If we don’t all stick together it weakens the community. We have personally gone out of our way to let other bands know about shady promoters.

And then a quote from Los (Fukn) Ramirez that underscores the thought of the old Punkers and one of the challenges for any community to grow: “What the scene really needs is an all ages music venue – allow those underage kids to get in there – it’s better for them and for the bands.

Hidden track

And then there’s Button Struggler.

Led by lead singer and guitarist, Matt Spastic, the Phoenix-based punk quartet has one foot firmly rooted in the past and the other on the neck of the future.

With Tim Commer joining Spastic on guitar and vocals, Andrew Jemsek on drums, and Slammy on bass,
this group puts on one hellava show.

Loud, fast and furious, would be a very good description of songs like “Flush you clean,” and “Burn it down.”  Button Struggler is a very polished and well-oiled punk machine that gives a performance that would put younger bands to shame with their enthusiasm and wild stage antics.

While Button Struggler has played all over the Valley, there is one venue that is home away from home for this rabble – a venue that shares the DIY spirit of the Hate House: The Firehouse.

Located at First Street and Roosevelt-ish, The Firehouse, a graffiti-painted building is home, literally, to artists and musicians, an art gallery and has hosted countless all-ages shows by bands of virtually every genre.

About 6 months ago, Jeff Moses of The Firehouse, decided to hold a punk night. At first, he really didn’t know what to expect. In fact, he didn’t think it would work at all.

Matt Spastic performing with Button Struggler

“I was iffy at best on holding a punk show,” Moses recalls in a recent interview with me, “Rock, pop,
indie, sure, those genres pull good crowds, but no one ever held a punk night.”

The first show saw 50+ fans out for the night. The next show, a handful more. And now 6 months later, it’s one of the most attended nights of the month. There is a charge, $5. But if someone doesn’t have it, a contribution is accepted for entry.

“It’s great,” Moses said, “and we’re completely embracing all genres of punk: skate, thrash, pop punk. Bring it on, and we’ll put you on.”

Moses told me that punk night at The Firehouse is for established bands like Button Struggler, bands that are working out their set, and even newly formed punk bands score a spot on the bill.

Amazingly and, for me, most happily, The Firehouse has really taken on the idea of the Hate House without even knowing it.

“Even though the event is getting bigger, we’re really love the idea that it’s still underground, you know,” Moses said with a rye smile. “ I went back and checked out some videos of basement punk shows, you know, where they started, and sure, we’re in a back yard, but the feeling is the same.”

Reprise

When I started down this road, I had no idea where it would take me. I knew Phoenix had a Punk history, but I had no clue how deep, nor have I even scratched the surface of what is out there.

It was amazing that when I spoke to one person, that person would say, you need to talk to this person, or that person. I wanted to, don’t get me wrong, but a book wasn’t the end goal here. I’ll leave that to Robin Rexless when her book comes out in September.

I am pleasantly thrilled with what I learned about the past, but in the middle of this process, I had very low expectations about the future of Punk in Phoenix. Come to find out, there is a thriving community here. The bands are passionate about the music, hard working and stick up for each other. And the venues do embrace the genre.

But I do think there’s a long way to go to revive the foam-at-the-mouth punk scene of the 70s that surrounded the Hate House. Venues like The Firehouse that are reviving that “Do-it-yourself” feeling are a good start. Sure, there’s a lot of other things that could take place, but you know, the one thing that will make any music community better, is great music. And there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of that in Phoenix.

Long live Punk, Phoenix.
_

Special thanks to everyone who were interviewed, appeared and contribute memories to this article. Ron and Robin Rexless, Matt Spatic, The Venomous Pinks, Los (Fukn) Ramirez, Monty O’Blivion from Manual Sex Drive, Robert Tobias Fatzinger, Jeff Moses, Micah Elliot, and Jim Fury Hesterman

We Made a Correction: Originally we stated that Jeff Moses was the co-owner of the Firehouse. This information was a mistake and we corrected the above text. 

7 Comments

  1. Hello all, one note, and correction I’d like to make, is that Mr. Jeff Moses, is not the co-owner of the Firehouse.

  2. Obviously no one did any research outside of Facebook on Ron & Robin “Rexless” Grotjan. Ron has been in prison for manslaughter, driving while loaded on a triple combo of xanax, methadone, & clonopin. A quick search on Google, etc. will find Ronald Denton Grotjan. Do prisoners get to conduct interviews from prison these days? As for his wife Robin, she has literally NOTHING to do with Arizona Punk. A sociopath who has been using other persons stories as her own since 1999. DO THE RESEARCH!!!

    1. Robin Grotjan was still a babe in diapers when any of this went on … She hooked up with old Ron (20yrs her senior) and just regurgitates the stories he has told her … and she has never written a book on the history of phx Punk … you should take this stuid page down …

      1. Hey James it’s John Anderson. We met through Ron. Nice to see your Post.

  3. Hey James it’s John Anderson. We met through Ron. Nice to see your Post.

  4. This article is total horseshit. Robin is a nut job and the obvious mistake of the Father Figures, Asses of Evil, etc. all hitting their stride in the golden age of the Hate House! Ha!

  5. what about billy cione and the same . frank disun and the feeders. the names. spiffs

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