A lot of people have misconceptions about the great state of Arizona. They think: Cowboys, ranches, cactuses. Or they think: Racist backwards Republicans. Those things do exist in Arizona, just as they do in several other Southwestern states. A liberal-minded individual might indeed feel like an outsider anywhere other than Bisbee, Tucson or Tempe, but the fact of the matter is that the Grand Canyon State has a lot going for it that can't be quantified by voting districts.
Take music, for example. Arizona has long bred a particular brand of iconoclastic outlaw musician, as many un-cool places have a tendency to do. There's no one to show off for, no A&R representatives to impress. If you're making rock 'n' roll there, chances are you're doing it for the pure hell of it. For your friends, for yourself, for a few pitchers of beer.
I left my home state when I was 21, but I've always kept the soothing glow of those wide open skies, arid landscapes and dusty roads close to my heart. And I've always held a fondness for the real rock 'n' roll that has grown there despite the odds, like flowers on a prickly pear. Here, then, is a little tour of ten diverse vinyl highlights from the 48th state.
1.) Al Foul and the Shakes, "It's a Long Way to Hell" b/w "Don't Feel at All"
Rockabilly and punk have long been kissin' cousins (just ask the Cramps). Al Foul -- who began his career as a teenage punker in Boston -- is a Southern Arizona institution who has been rockin' his own style of ironic, acerbic rock 'n' roll for a solid 20 years. The A-side is cool, but the masterpiece on this platter is the flip, "Don't Feel at All," a mean, cold-hearted ode to the joys of being a heartless man.
2.) Digital Leather, "Simulator" b/w "Dance Till Dead"
I'm not sure where Shawn Foree, the Perv Prince of Synth Punk, hangs his hat nowadays (Nebraska? Germany?) , but he started out as an Arizonan. His seemingly never-ending flood of material seems to have ebbed of late, but you can't miss with a single one of his records. This creepy 45 was his first seven-inch offering.
3.) Doo Rag, "Hussy Bowler" b/w "Grease & All"
Before Bob Log went solo and turned into a sort of eternal Hasil Adkins in a helmet, he fronted this mind-bending two-piece from Tucson. With his Mississippi-Fred-McDowell-on-speed blues guitar and distorted vocals, he was clearly the creative brawn of the show (drummer Thermos Malling used to use an upended cardboard box as an instrument). This was the band's first-ever release.
4.) Earthmen & Strangers, "Painter" b/w "Space on Our Hands"
Like a rock 'n' roll nomad, Ryan Rousseau never sticks with one project for long. Sure, his brooding Destruction Unit has been around for a decade, but its featured so many different line-ups and musical approaches that each incarnation stands alone. Earthmen & Strangers is his most pop-oriented project to date, with a super-tight rhythm section and a trippy, post-punk desert vibration that defies categorization.
5.) The Fells, "Space Girls" b/w "Sleep With You," "Uma"
The first Fells 45 was limited to 400 hand-numbered copies and remains one of the finest garage rock singles of the '90s. A seething sonic maelstrom, it still sounds ahead of its time more than 20 years after it was recorded. The title cut is a psychedelic monolith that lasts more than five minutes, taking listeners on a pounding, feedback-slathered roller coaster ride that includes sci-fi sound bytes and a chaotic, multi-layered structure
6.) Lenguas Largas, "I Feel" b/w "Entity Me," "Lonely Summertime"
It's hard to find the right words to describe this Tucson band, which is so large it threatens to spill off the stage of most venues it plays. With eerie vocals and complex instrumentation that features an incredibly taut rhythm section, they take listeners on a dark and dangerous ride through space and time. Their live shows are mind-bending and their records are all small masterpieces of atmospheric desert psychedelic rock.
7.) Okmoniks "Take a Spin With" EP
This self-released platter was the band's 2002 debut and featured three sloppy, catchy-as-hell, Farfisa-riddled songs that are so good the band pressed'em on both sides of the EP. They followed up with a couple more seven-inches and a great LP from Slovenly Recordings before leaving Tucson for the more fertile garage rock terrain of the Bay Area. Justin "Nobunny" Champlin, yet another displaced Tucsonan, beat the skins for them on their last 45.
8.) The Peeps "Stiletto" b/w "Rock-N-Roll Man," "Loverboy"
This foxy girl band from Phoenix released its second and best 45 at the close of the 20th Century on Tina Lucchesi's superb and much-missed Lipstick Records. Lo-fi and fun, the EP boasts a rough and ready energy that the band never quite recaptured after moving on to bigger labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry. The record was recorded in Cave Creek Arizona by none other than punk 'n' roll legend Jeff Dahl.
9.) The Spites "Stay In," "Cheap Beer, Fast Cars + Girls"
These guys were the only Arizona band to put out a record on legendary '90s punk label Rip-Off Records. Loud, speedy and crude, with a sound that seemed perfect for a dusty backyard kegger, their subject matter (the second song says it all) was no-frills, textbook slop-rock.
10.) The Wongs "Get Away!" EP
Teenage Ryan Rousseau was a drummer way back when this brazen platter erupted out of Yuma like a zit-faced, boner-toting, adolescent fever dream. Highlights include the antisocial title cut and a wonderfully tasteless ode to Tina Lucchesi's seminal '90s surf-rock trio, "Jerkin' it to the Trashwomen." A total of 800 hand-numbered copies were released in two editions from Rerun Records.