Laundry Is Such Bad Karma:
Glimpes Into the World of the Sun City Girls
by Derek Monypeny (May 1999)
The Sun City Girls are:
Rick Bishop: guitar
Alan Bishop: bass
Charles Gocher Jr.: drums
Prologue: Three Fake Female Orgasms
I. In an interview with Forced Exposure magazine in 1989, the fellows describe the first-ever Sun City Girls show with the above line-up, now approaching the end of its second decade together:
Rick: (It was) opening for Black Flag. We came out with a weird jazz approach to a bunch of skinheads. They absolutely hated us, started throwing things at us. We ended up getting most of the skinheads on stage with us playing horns by the end of the night... They were bad- mouthing us over the mikes while they were onstage, telling the audience how bad we sucked... At first they were against us, then they were for us. We didn't give a shit what they thought.
Alan: The whole illusion that someone has power just because they're on stage, there's no point to that. One can take the stage at any time, and they realized that and did it.
Charlie: The general feeling up until then was one of tension. They threw sandwiches at Rick and he was picking them up off the floor and eating them.
II. A typical weekend night. Alan Bishop, in character as "Uncle Jim," strolls down former SCG home base Tempe, Arizona's biker- haven-turned-frat-yuppie-corporate-nightmare-strip Mill Avenue,while supplying a running commentary on his surroundings and the state of the world in general. From the "Cloaven Theater" video.
Uncle Jim: Ahh, look at it here, here we are now, it's the lake of swill. Yeah, we're gonna be taking all those corporate executives, you know we're gonna put 'em up on the branch... and we're gonna lynch 'em. And the branch is Citibank, that's right guys... 'cause your Uncle Jim don't take shit from nobody, that's right guys... We're going over here to the Christian Winston and All the Dung Prudes, it's lookin' real good to me... (eyeing a frat-oaf's T-shirt) yeah, Hendrix, I used to play basketball with him back in the early '40s. It's lookin' really good here- we got tie-dyed condoms for sale, 7 different colors to get ready for the Second Coming. (Answers a frat- oaf's question) What am I shooting? Gimme a gun, baby, I'll take care of it, start shooting right now... We don't need Mill Avenue and we don't need you, guy.
III. Sun City, Arizona community profile. From the Arizona Department of Commerce.
Sun City is the quintessential retirement community in the nation. Located 12 miles northwest of Phoenix, Sun City is known for the active lifestyle of its senior citizens. There are more than 350 clubs and civic organizations and seven recreation centers. Sun City is not incorporated and taxes are one-half to two-thirds lower than in most other area communities.
Sun City began as a partnership between builder Del Webb and cotton farmer J.G. Boswell who owned the land. It opened on New Year's Day 1960 with a three-bedroom, two-bath house selling for $11,300. It was an instant success and 237 homes were sold in the first three days. Sun City deed restrictions require at least one resident per household to be 55 years or older.
Sun City encompasses 8,900 acres of which 1,200 acres are golf courses. It has been called a golfers paradise. Golf links wind throughout the community creating large green open spaces. The electric golf cart, a non-polluting vehicle, is a favorite form of transportation.
Music of the Great Southwest
The Sun City Girls are America's premier underground band. No qualifiers such as "arguably" or "possibly" are necessary. For going on 20 years now they have steadily, relentlessly amassed a body of work that is simply without peer or precedent in American music, "rock" or otherwise. Their ouevere encompasses a dizzying array of styles, genres, and influences, yet no bands' music is more completely and distinctly their own. In their live and recorded performances, they have challenged and explored the implications of such anachronisms as "art," "beauty," "humor," "culture," "reality" and "bullshit" in ways that none of today's artists in any field can even imagine. While the bumper stickers on every other Volvo encourage us to "subvert the dominant paradigm" and every other punk-funk-ska-swing band insist that they are "into all kinds of music," the Sun City Girls take these and many other kinds of ideological and aesthetic statements, push them to their conclusions, and reap the attendant rewards of obscurity, confusion and ridicule. Apparently they believe that somebody has to.
The S.C.G. have always dealt with distinctions- between "rock" and "punk" and "world" and "improvised" and "good" and "bad" music, between "rock concerts" and "performance art," between a "real band" and a "joke band" and a "political band" - by ignoring them. At the same time, they wholeheartedly eschew the smug irony that always looks so good on postmodern grant proposals. While it is obviously important to them to make and sell their records, they have never been interested in any of the traditional methods of self-promotion. Not too surprisingly, the results of these and other factors have been that relatively few people have heard their music, even in experimental or indie/avant-garde circles.
It's not like they don't have selling points. They have performed and recorded with luminaries of the improv scene such as Eyvand Kang and Eugene Chadbourne, yet John Zorn has never had them over for a game of Cobra. They "jam econo" in the strictest sense, but expend no energy on the proliferation of a personality cult, so the flannel-flyers pass them by. They are a 3-piece band from Arizona with brothers handling guitar and bass chores, but if Kurdt ever covered "I Knew a Jew Named Frankenstein" on Unplugged, I missed it. They could definitely be characterized as "seminal," yet Thurston Moore has never coordinated a covers/tribute album for them (only one band I know of has even attempted a cover on record; Wingtip Sloat recorded a rendition of perhaps the least interesting song in the entire SCG canon, "Kill the Klansmen"). For the miniscule number of people in the world who are interested in challenging, unusual music at all, they exist as a name to be dropped. Nowhere is this fact made more evident than in an online interview with pseudo-visionary singer-songwriter Will "Palace" Oldham, who brags that he and his Pavement pals recently recorded a song "in the Sun City Girls vein," yet offers no explanation as to what he means and isn't challenged by the interviewer. The following would have been a more appropriate reaction to Oldham's statement:
"Oh, really, Will, in the Sun City Girls vein? Does that mean the aggressive, Middle Eastern-influenced trio smashing one hears on their most well known record Torch of the Mystics amongst the lambada-crooning and mysto-poking? Did you turn the tape on and recite from the collected works of Adam Weishaupt while your pals destroyed a Thermos and whistled "I'm Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee"? Or maybe you did an extended improvised piece of the kind found on Live From Planet Boomerang, 33,033 Cross-Dressers from the Rig Veda, or the live C.O.N. Artists LP? Or it coulda been you guys pulled off a vulgar, novelty-topical-political, Tuli Kufenberg/Chadourne blast like the SCG did on Horse Cock Phephner? Or maybe you all sat around and made like inbred hillbillies full of Rebel Yell, picking and grinning with banjos and whoops, just like Jack's Creek? Perhaps you guys did a movie score, like the SCG has done for the films Juggernaut, Dulce, and Piasa, Devourer of Men? Probably you took the easy way out and did shitty covers of "Fly by Night," "Sweet City Woman," "Love Train," "Who's That Lady," etc. like on Midnight Cowboys from Impanema. You could have done a heartfelt acoustic number, like "Eye Mohini" or "Borungku Si Derita." Of course, it also would have been in the "Sun City Girls vein" to record a theater piece, a drama involving a bored convenience store clerk, a forked-tongue immigrant, and a derelict, like the Napoleon and Josephine 7-inch. So which was it? You understand, Will- it's just for the sake of clarity."
Bright Surroundings, Dark Beginnings
"When I was six years old I wrote this book called Animals of Indonesia. And it goes on for about 50 pages describing all these incredible animals like the clouded leopard and the proboscis monkey and some of the buffalo species in Sumatra. I was really into it."
-Alan, in Forced Exposure 1989
The Sun City Girls could not have been created anywhere other than the state of Arizona, so it's a lucky thing that the Bishop family moved to the Sun City area from the midwest sometime in the '70s. Rick and Alan were raised on a steady diet of radio and rock, but it didn't take long for their imaginations to become infiltrated with the barren, existensial beauty, the extreme weather, the literally insane juxtaposition of overwhelming corporate/development dominance and free-thinking, individualist ideology that characterizes the Grand Canyon State. They got involved in the music scene that revolved around Phoenix and Tempe, including a stint accompanying temporary Arizona refugee Maureen Tucker in the band Paris 1942, and formed the Sun City Girls at the beginning of the 1980s with a changing cast of characters.
The Bishops met up with Charles Gocher in 1981. As Charlie put it, "I'd been in Arizona since 1971... It took ten years but I knew sooner or later I'd run into someone for whom I'd immediately feel a lot of empathy. They were doing good things... I had some things jotted down, but I couldn't find anyone to pull them off with any of the panache or finesse that these two have." Eventually the lineup was solidified, and the Sun City Girls began playing shows around town, mostly in opening roles for touring punk bands. In 1984, they were signed by the local Placebo label, who were known mostly as the home of skate-punk "legends" Jodie Foster's Army, and released their first, self-titled LP.
Sun City Girls very clearly established the template for almost all that would come afterward. Vast in scope, by turns hilarious, ferocious, and ineffable, this remarkably self-assured first album stood out even in the fertile soil of mid-80's underground rock. Damn near everything was here: powerful, dramatic instrumentals ("Caravan of Scars"), absurd monologues over shifting sounds ("Uncle Jim," "The Burning Nerve-Ending Magic Trick"), statements of purpose ("Jokers on a Waltz"), displays of Middle Eastern sensibility ("Black Tent"), and reflections on the incredible conservatism of the times ("Your Bible Set Off My Smoke Alarm").
This initial LP also showcased for the first time the individual musical elements that continue define the "SCG sound" in its myriad contexts: Rick's virtuoso guitar playing, with its unholy fusion of Reinhardt/Christian, Shankaresque raga, Sonny Sharrock, Thin Lizzy, and Henry Kaiser; Alan's solid-yet-slippery bass playing exploding in a rage on the improvs, combined with his secret-weapon multi-octave singing voice and its ability to channel Burmese divas and wicked witches to unforgettable effect; and Charlie's knowledgable, versatile percussion, always light enough to keep the music flying, yet scattered and multilingual enough to steer it.
Here are some of the excuses people gave for their inability to deal with this record, or the SCG in general, at the time: 1. Sharing a label with JFA lumped them into the skate-clown category (never mind that Placebo was also home to such non-thrashers as Eugene Chadbourne and Maybe Mental, as well as the groundbreaking Dry Lungs industrial music compilation series). 2. They were a rip-off of the Butthole Surfers (absurd to think about now, but people really thought so, especially when Horse Cock Phephner came out after Rembrandt Pussyhorse). 3. They are a joke band and I don't like joke bands (no comment).
Armed with the non-support of a not-so-adoring public,the Sun City Girls soldiered on: a nationwide tour with JFA in '84, two more brilliant records for Placebo (Grotto of Miracles, with its beautiful, Rick-heavy, unusually near-accessible first side turning into a churning mind-meld mess on side two; Horse Cock Phephner, a necessarily filthy look into the Evan Mecham/Ronald Reagan American maw), scads of cassettes on their own Cloaven label, trips to Southeast Asia, many live performances. Then, at decade's end, upheaval: Rick's move from Tempe to Seattle, the financial collapse of Placebo, and the fateful recording sessions that would result in perhaps the SCG's finest hour: Torch of the Mystics. All of a sudden a Sun City Girls live show, once as much a part of Arizona life as a Circle K, would become a rare occurrence.
"We've always been into ecstatic kinetic motion, senselessly throwing ourselves around our instruments, turning people in the audience into instruments, playing people, playing the kinetics of crowd motion. Like when people are more interested in the social aspects of being there, or when you get enough people so that it's like an oceanherd, warm waves moving through cold waves of water. We've gone out of our way to watch crowd flow and draw them into what we're doing."
-Charlie, from Forced Exposure 1989
Everyone knows what happens when you go see your favorite indie-rock or underground band live. The band sullenly sets up their equipment and tunes. Maybe if they're a really weird band, one of the guys has a dress on. Hollers, whoops, "Free Bird"s. They play. Maybe there's banter from band to audience, maybe not. Maybe the band is really hot, maybe just average. The audience either loves them or doesn't. They play. More hollers, more whoops- the audience has had time to drink. They do a recognizable cover or a particularly good song of their own that they saved for near-last. One more song, extended way past the way it is on the record. They're done. They leave the guitars leaning against the amps without turning them off, creating harsh feedback. They either get strong audience support for an encore or they don't. They do a reluctant encore, or they don't. More whistles and whoops, maybe more hollers. Lights.
Here's a description of a Sun City Girls show by Grux of Caroliner taken from Bananafish 'zine:
"The drummer just kind of talked to people, gave them all kinds of weird things to think about. He twirled drumsticks in circles around their heads. Almost like Japanese dancing or something. The guitar player was using a globe on a pogo stick. It didn't work really well... He was going 'Rraaarr, rrgghh, aarrgh'... The bass player had a mop that he was using like a horse, doing these jigs. He had a copy of Car and Driver and treating it as pornography, holding it up sideways, smiling, saying things like 'Heh heh, there's a good one. Look at the spread on that'... And in the background, they were playing a tape of weird guitar sounds and laughing and people shouting and firecrackers. It sort of went, 'szzzeeooo bhhh heeheehee ghghgh wawoo ooo haahaa pfoouh kabhhh.'"
You might go see the Sun City Girls and end up seeing a band playing their music. Or you might go and see a show like the one described above. Or they might be showing slides from a trip to Bali and talking about their hatred of the word "strife": "all the poets use it to rhyme with 'life'" (this was a show I saw on New Years Eve 1989-New Year's Day 1990 in Phoenix). Or they might be huddled around a fake campfire, their backs to the audience, high on "shine" from the "still". Or Alan will do stand-up comedy/audience baiting while the others make noise. Or they will do some low-rent Kabuki wrapped in bedsheets from KMart. Or Charlie will lead you through "Dante's Disneyland Inferno." After all, he's the guy who described playing live as a way to "bring out the true spirit of what (the audience) is about, that they like to be abused." Uncle Jim might show up. Pelican references. "This is dedicated to the bike path on Indian Bend." You might hate it, and it might be worth hating. You just hope for the next one.
Seattle, Washington has been home to the SCG for over 5 years now. After an incredible run of material on their fellow Phoenix/Seattle mate Nick Schultz's Majora label, starting with Torch and including the epic 2 LP Live From Planet Boomerang, the all-improv Dawn of the Devi, the raw revisitation of material from the first LP combined with improv/magic (Valentines from Matahari), a 3-song set of live-to-tape lurkers and concert stalwarts (Bright Surroundings Dark Beginnings), and a spate of singles, they now record exclusively for their own Abduction label. As if the previous 10+ years weren't dizzying enough, their most recent work is probably their best; it redefines where they've been while blazing newer, deeper musical trails, cutting a good deal of the jokery that has always been a part of their M.O. in the process. Each of the double CD sets (333,033 Cross-Dressers, Dante's Disneyland Inferno) are worth an essay in and of themselves, and they followed those monsters up with the career-defining triple CD Box of Chameleons in 1997. The exhausting pace with which they have released material of late seems finally to be slowing somewhat, which gives us all the opportunity to behold this material in its inscrutable richness.
Longtime SCG producer and accomplice Scott Colburn's complete SCG Discography is an invaluable resource for those interested in the music of the Sun City Girls. A catalog of material still in print is available through Abduction Records:
P.O. Box 9611
Seattle, WA 98109
The life they change may be your own.
Epilogue: Jokers On A Waltz
"It's like going back and looking at it, knowing what you're doing, knowing the sounds emenating from it, knowing there might be a reason for it, turning your back on the reason to find other things, like why you play music with a couple of friends of yours or make stuff up, create neogisms, secret languages that you don't even understand to explain it."
-Charlie Gocher Jr.
Also see our Sun City Girls interview
Alan Bishop's Morricone article
Alan Bishop's tribute to SCG drummer Charles Gocher
the official Sun City Girls website
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