Often overlooked by punk history’s gatekeepers, Lisa Fancher’s venerable Frontier Records label is celebrating 40 years of important punk rock releases. Without her there to release some of the first music by the Adolescents, Circle Jerks, Black Randy, Red Kross, Suicidal Tendencies and so many more, the Los Angeles punk scene would have been far less righteous. Anthony Mostrom caught up with Lisa Fancher, still releasing new material, and reissuing the best of the old stuff, 40 years later.
The proliferation of punk rock records in the late 1970s and early ‘80s on big, small and tiny independent record labels (most of them, of course, being 7” singles) clearly fast-forwarded the education of a generation: how else, back in those cheap and TV-saturated days with such limited cultural options for kids (what, comic books? garbage TV?) could a growing boy or girl be exposed to something as bracingly harsh as a musical joke that made sacrilegious fun of Sharon Tate while mixing it up with scraping guitars and an old garbled recording of Nazi speeches, droning on behind the martial beats of a snare drum? (The song I’m thinking of here was “They Saved Hitler’s Cock”, three minutes of outrage by the Angry Samoans).
Punk wasn’t polite, but it could be very funny. Just look at some of the song titles from different bands circa 1977 to 1982: “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones”(Fear),“Murder the Disturbed”(Circle Jerks), “I’m a Loner With a Boner” (Black Randy and the Metro Squad), “Kill the Hippies” (The Deadbeats), “I Hate Children” (Adolescents),not to mention the Samoans’ immortal “You Stupid Jerk” and “My Old Man’s a Fatso”…the list is endless, the stuff is hilarious!
On the West Coast, Lisa Fancher, a proud native of the San Fernando Valley and founder of Frontier Records, was responsible for releasing many of these records to an unsuspecting world back in the early wild west days of the L.A. punk scene. She’s still at it today, the keeper of the archive is still standing, still putting out records, as Frontier celebrates its 40-year anniversary.
In the midst of that lost world that was 1979- and 1980-era Los Angeles, the air thick with bands like the Circle Jerks, the Germs, 45 Grave and the Middle Class, she founded Frontier, which has survived through thick and thin to remain today as L.A.’s longest-running punk rock label, one of a handful of independent L.A. imprints that unleashed the city’s first generation of punk, beginning with the eponymous album by the Adolescents. The record sleeve of this seminal offering bore the group’s name split in half so that it seemed to read as “Adolf Scents.” (Hmm, good band name?)
You might recall some of Frontier’s other early successes (or you might hear some of them here):
Fancher started her music career back in the late 1970s, first as a record store employee both in L.A. and the Valley, including the still-fondly-remembered Bomp Records shop: “We were the punk rock store, with Cliff from the Weirdos, Kid Congo, Don Snowden and members of the Quick all working there…”
As seasoned veterans still remember, those were the wild, young n’ restless days of the L.A. scene, when clubs and bands advertised gigs the old-fashioned way, with printed flyers posted all over town and covering the bulletin boards (yes, the bulletin boards) at L.A.’s proliferating record shops (I can remember Melrose Avenue being totally covered with flyers one crazy hot summer) or by placing display ads in our giveaway paper the LA WEEKLY, which I was writing for at the time.
Fancher’s first fledgling Frontier foray was the release of a 12-inch EP by a totally unknown group called the Flyboys. It was a flop, “an utter and complete stiff,” she says, “’because the band broke up before it was released.” If you listen to it now, though, it’s not that bad:
But things started to click by the early ‘80s, when Fancher “scored” the first Circle Jerks LP just before she started unleashing more sonic harshness onto the world, by up and coming punk combos like Redd Kross, Suicidal Tendencies, Christian Death, TSOL, China White…the list goeth on and on…
In those days, she was everywhere, a hot (as well as beautiful) and influential L.A. scenester who also happened to be a driven, dedicated hard-ass dealmaker, putting out one after the other, record after record, literally making the scene in punk-era Los Angeles.
In conversation Fancher first strikes one as a wisecracker with a salty tongue, but behind it she’s a to-the-point businesswoman who does not (as the saying goes) suffer fools gladly…maybe the best way to describe her is: a sharp w*t who doesn’t give a sh*t. But the fact remains that pure enthusiasm for the music drives her life as much now as it did back in the proverbial day. She’s still blonde, gorgeous and seemingly ageless (more proof that artmaking keeps an artist young) one of the few persons still standing whose resume includes producing and issuing some of the most important and best-known L.A. punk records in the history of the music…still keepin’ hope alive.
Inside her cool, 1950s modernist house on a leafy suburban block in the Valley, not far from dear old, post-WWII-flavored Ventura Boulevard, she pulls from out of a box of fresh stock a pristine, gleaming white copy of her vinyl reissue of the classic 1980 album Pass the Dust, I Think I’m Bowie, by that oddball genius Black Randy & the Metro Squad. She puts it on the Technics turntable and…
…and as that rich vinyl sound starts to roll, the jarring and resurrected voice of Black Randy (who died in the depressing year of 1988) now throws me back to how truly greasy his voice was, with that strange lilt (or maybe it was just a lisp) so similar to those Baltimore accents you could hear in the early John Waters films: on his first Dangerhouse single, “Trouble at the Cup,” for example, he sang:
“They say the Boulevaud, is no plathe to be! Pinball n’ coffee are awright with me! I can’t live a-lewn, I’ve got to be free! I hate my parents more than they hate me! Schools and factories make me sick! I’d rather stand here, an’ sell maw’y dick…” Black Randy was a kick.
Being the astute dispenser of culture that she is, Fancher decided a few years ago, quite wisely, to take on the precious mantle of reviving the legacy of yet another great, fantastic early label from L.A.’s bygone punk days of yore: the cult-favorite label Dangerhouse Records, which back in the early hardcore days issued a handful of some of the most gloriously designed 45s and LPs from the L.A. scene: not only by Black Randy but others representing the more adventurous and arty bands to come out of the Southern California punk impetus. What resulted was the vinyl compilation Dangerhouse Volume One on Frontier. She puts the record on and suddenly the noise fills up the whole room and our ears like some powerful, angry ghosts:
Listening to this album moves me to comment to our hostess with the mostest that nasty snarling old L.A. punk was always (to put it mildly) beyond politically incorrect long before today’s online, quasi-language-police state existed (the obnoxious overuse of that wimpy word inappropriate all the fucking time being a perfect example of the current PC stranglehold on “the culture”).
When I bring up the current firewall against so called offensiveness among the younger, touchier generation, Fancher, ever the soul of helpfulness, suggests with a Lisa-style smirk: “try listening to the Adolescents song ‘No Way’.” So we give it a listen (the Adolescents LP came out on Frontier way back in the golden year of 1981…okay now, these are some lyrics!)
Hmm…should we play this song today in the out-of-doors somewhere, like, say, over the loudspeakers at a college, or in your friendly neighborhood record store? Clearly, punk’s underlying message consisted of a few golden words: fuck you, have a nice day, enjoy the music…but to anyone who heard it and was not a moron, punk was also funny as heck (all of Black Randy’s songs, for example, were hysterical).
Fancher started collecting records at the age of 9. In her early 20s, she began publishing music fanzines: Street Life and Biff! Bang! Pow!, and wrote concert reviews for the L.A. Times: “I was fired by (music critic) Robert Hilburn…for being too enthusiastic!” She wrote too, for a spell, for the old Herald Examiner newspaper.
Over the past 40 years of riding the unholy animal there have been some thin stretches that saw her company languishing, as she puts it, “on life support,” as well as some harrowing incidents involving distribution deals gone bad and corporate promises not kept making things very difficult for a while: “The late ’80s were hard times, when the music biz collapsed. I got stiffed by distributors, blah blah. At one point I had two offices, then by ’92, it was just me.” She states these stats with a typical Fancher saltiness in the voice: matter-of-fact, tough and impatient.
“The ’90s? Oh, joy! Several disastrous licensing deals with BMG, Rykodisc and Epitaph, leading to such a massive cash crunch that I had to work for one year at MCA…” She looks down and sneers, that signature sneer so well-known by more than a few L.A. musicians who owe her more than they know. “One for the memoirs!” she snaps, with comic finality.
I mention, laughing, that I like how her website touts Frontier as “Sun Valley’s premier record label since 1980!”
“Yeah, it always says that,” she says. “I still have my fuckin’ PO Box there, and still nobody knows where that is! It begins at Sherman Way and Vineland and goes out (east) to San Fernando Road…it’s ugly, it’s gang territory. But yeah, that’s where I grew up…went to Poly High. Tons of car shit there (translation: auto wrecking yards).” Yes, our proud San Fernando Valley heritage.
I can’t help asking a couple fan-boy questions: did you know Black Randy? “Yes! What was his real name? Uh…John Morris. Started out as this totally normal dude, then gradually morphed into being…Black Randy. I don’t know what drugs, etc. did it. He was big friends with the Screamers. And he could be a real mean prankster, did you know that? There are some prank phone calls he did that’re on Youtube.”
Did she ever see the widely acknowledged “first hardcore band” the Middle Class? “I saw them millions of times. They were in Orange County: beautiful Fullerton, California. Yeeaahh! We’d go down there to see bands play. They opened for a thousand bands. They were the transition to hardcore. Once you got that song of theirs Out of Vogue in your head you can’t get it out!”
There’s no doubt that Fancher is one of the unsung heroines of L.A. punk rock history, and I mean that in the most lame and egregious kind of way: take for example some recent books and more than a few serious-faced academic forums in Los Angeles and elsewhere devoted to L.A. punk history (including conferences on women-in-punk) that amazingly left out any mention of Fancher or Frontier Records at all.
But while the music-history industry churns along (with its troubling touches of Hollywood-like cheesiness inevitably thrown in), the number of influential albums that were released on Frontier will in time be duly noted by the cultural gatekeepers, and I daresay, worshiped thereby.
On running a record label almost single-handedly for a few decades she comments: “Look…this is not hard labor, there are much, much worse things I can think of to be doing, but yeah, it’s constant: I’ve got four new releases to listen to, like now, and Rainbo (a local record pressing plant) just went outta business, today.” This is a problem for Fancher and her longtime assistant Julie Masi. “They threw away all of our stampers…” So running a label has its headachy moments.
I mention to her that at a lot of Southern California punk gigs I can remember seeing in the ’80s, the best part of the show was very often the funny banter between the songs (no reply…she does not agree). The Mentors, for example, and their tetched-in-the-head, hard-drinking drummer El Duce (real name Eldon Hoke) loved yelling out to the audience such heart-tugging benedictions as “this next song is called Havin’ My Baby! An’ I hope…it’s a heroin babyyyy!”
We laugh about it now, we laughed about it then. There’s no doubt that the original punk generation both audience and musicians were a tough-ass bunch, by far the opposite of today’s hypersensitivity: they reveled in being offensive and they laughed about it.
Fancher says Frontier is still “reissuing vintage punk material, some remastered Thin White Rope LPs, and in 2018 we put out a Stimulators EP…they were the first New York City hardcore band.”
Much is planned to celebrate the label’s 40th, including new record releases and a couple of live shows in November:
“We got two nights at the Echoplex on November 15th: Lilys, songwriter Mark Eitzel and other Frontier alternative bands, then on November 22nd it’s all punk: Adolescents, Weirdos, Christian Death 1334, maybe some others.
“Then we got four new record releases planned for late summer 2020: Lilys, Flat Worms Live, a Christian Death EP of 1982 demos, and the Adolescents “Blue” LP as a box set. Hoping for no production problems!”
“Mostly we’re a reissue label,” she adds. “I’m the punk rock version of Rhino Records now.”
But that’s clearly not the whole story: witness the recent release on the label of the deliciously packaged 2-record vinyl set of the Lily’s exquisite shoegaze album, In the Presence of Nothing:
“They are the shit,” says Fancher. “I’m so glad I re-made contact with them…that’s why it’s good to be a stalker.”
Where have they all gone, those snarling boys and wine-spitting girls, the whole splayed-out-on-the-floor, bloodied-and-bruised lot of them? Can punk rock’s attitude and its reckless sense of humor save Western Civ? What college kid today has the inner strength, the rock-ribbed moral fiber and integrity to harken back unto their youthful forebears: the Weirdos, Rhino 39, the Germs, even the Mentors (whose best song was called “Going Through Your Purse”) and laugh?
At this late point in the interview, Fancher mentions that she currently has her “very own” streaming radio station…and so I have to ask, much as the straight man in an old vaudeville act or a comedy team like Abbott and Costello would have to ask, taking the bait: what are the call letters, Lisa?