The early 1980s was a time of intense musical exploration. There was so much music to discover, and the fun part was that it was all current. They called it "punk rock," but the sounds were way more diverse than sped-up distorted guitars, crashing drums, and aggressive vocals. Bands like Butthole Surfers and Meat Puppets offered music that ranged from twisted psychedelic to mellow--yet bent--country rock. Then there was the deep esoterica of Sun City Girls--like the Puppets, another product of the Sonoran Desert.
The Sun City Girls were a trio comprising brothers Richard and Alan Bishop and drummer Charles Gocher. The band sounded like improvisational jazz, Middle Eastern or Asian music wrapped in a Captain Beefheart rock sense. At the same time, they weren't just about music. The band seemed to be making an effort to transmit something very far-out by wearing masks and costumes that underscored their shamanistic performance-art sensibilities. The volumes of their work can give an individual a sense of what they're about, so I will not--and cannot--pin them down. I can, though, share my experience as a longtime fan of the group.King Buzzo of the Melvins first turned me onto the group. Buzz had the band's first album (on the Placebo label, 1984) and we gave it a spin. The first thing I noticed about the album cover was that the swan-diving image was the same as the sticker Buzz had on his sunburst Les Paul. Oh, and this music was way out; it would slow down with dialogue, like the weird story from "Uncle Jim" about a jaded relative who wants you to know that he's got a take on everything. To this day I'm captivated by "My Painted Tomb" with its sweet chimes. These dudes could play. To me, this means they knew the rules before they broke them to pieces.
I finally got to see the band during Nirvana's first national tour in 1989. I was so excited that we were going to open for them in Phoenix. It was July and very hot in the desert--even at night. We were a Northwest grunge band, meaning we were basically a strain of heavy rock. The people coming into the club didn't fit this. The folks had this postmodern look. I barely recall the band that played after us, but they had unusual facial hair and did things like breathe fire to electric tribal beats. I know this is pretty standard fare today, but back then it was way off the map. Then the Sun City Girls came on.
Their performance drew me into their own world--just like good art is supposed to. Bass player Alan invited the crowd to "swing on the pendulum." There was no such physical device--rather, the listener was asked to follow the group to the far edges. (At least that is my interpretation.)
I caught the group again in the late 1990s, opening for the Melvins at the Cellophane Square record store on Seattle's University Avenue. I've never seen anyone play drums like Charles Goucher. He'd hit the cymbal stands, drum stool, or his arms with the sticks. There was no rhythm whatsoever. But somehow, the mayhem worked in context of the performance.
The group had relocated to Seattle, and I bumped into guitarist Richard Bishop in Pioneer Square a few years later. He invited me to an event later that evening at this Middle Eastern restaurant. In the early 1960s, the place had been a jazz club called the Penthouse, and John Coltrane recorded his famous Live in Seattle album there in 1965 (45 years ago next month, as a matter of fact). They played the album on the anniversary of its recording, listening at roughly the same time. It was like conjuring that moment so long ago. I liked the idea and the music was good, not to mention the baba ghanouj I ordered. There were like 10 people there.
Charles Goucher has since passed away. One of my favorite current releases is Sir Richard Bishop's Freaks of Araby. Freaks is an electric guitar instrumental album--kind of like a laid-back Dick Dale, along the lines of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet.
The Sun City Girls are not for everybody, but that's part of their charm. Knowing of the group is like possessing knowledge of some secret place.