Placebo Records and punk music history in Phoenix: A celebration
Tony Beram didn’t think he’d find himself revisiting his distant past as Tony Victor in 2022, archiving artifacts and memories of the years he put in seven days a week to deliver the gospel of the Phoenix underground to anyone who cared to listen.
He was 16 when he got into the music business, managing a classmate’s band, Detente.
By 1981, he was promoting punk shows through Mersey Productions.
That same year, a 19-year-old Beram launched Placebo Records with two members of his classmate’s band (who’d changed their name to Teds), Mark Bycroft and Greg Hynes.
The label’s first release was either “Blatant Localism,” a landmark six-song seven-inch by Arizona skate-punk legends Jodie Foster’s Army (JFA) or a Teds EP called “The Eighties Are Over.”
It’s a matter of debate, but Beram comes down squarely on the JFA side of the argument.
‘Outside the realm of normal’: How Placebo Records helped define the Phoenix underground
‘When I got out of it, I got out of it’
From 1981 to 1988, Placebo Records put out “maybe 30 records,” Beram says, including three essential local-music comps and seminal recordings by the likes of Mighty Sphincter, Victory Acres and Sun City Girls.
By the end of the decade, Beram says, “I was tired and didn’t have a lot to show for it.”
An older brother who’d toured with the Everly Brothers offered some advice that Beram took to heart.
“If you don’t make it in the music business by the time you’re 30, you’ve got to think about doing something else.”
The final titles on Placebo Records hit the streets in 1988.
He’s pretty sure his final shows as a concert promoter were in 1990, by which point he had already launched a far more lucrative career as a ticket broker with a business he called Western States Ticket Service.
By the end of his new business’ first decade, Beram says, “We were grossing $14 million a year and had 50 employees. It’s taken me and my family around the world several times. We do World Cups and Olympics and millions and millions of dollars worth of business every year.”
As for the life he left behind to launch that new career?
“When I got out of it, I got out of it,” Beram says. “I didn’t want to revisit it.”
More:Phoenix local music picks for March
Reuniting with Sun City Girls to reconnect with the past
But that’s exactly what he plans to do on Saturday, March 12, when Tony Victor, as he’s billed, will take part in a panel discussion with Alan and Richard Bishop of Sun City Girls at a performance space and gallery called Club Placebo on McDowell Road in downtown Phoenix.
A poster advertising the event, presented by Mersey Productions in association with a new nonprofit he’s named the Placebo Foundation, describes it as “a Club Placebo Hootenanny exploring the history of the Sun City Girls through the oral tradition.”
As Alan Bishop has come to understand the expectations for the evening, Beram is “trying to get into some of these stories and facts from the old days that we may have forgotten — or before they’re forgotten — to preserve as much of the history as he can.”
A day before the event, they’ll spend what Beram estimates will be likely be 12 hours filming interviews with the Bishops.
As outlined on the Club Placebo website, the idea is to build a “living archive” dedicated “to celebrating and documenting the rich musical artistic history of Phoenix underground music during the tenure of Placebo Records.”
More:Phoenix rockers’ ‘great lost album’ is coming out after 20 years
The inspiration to get back in the game
It’s a goal that grew out of a Phoenix New Times cover story in August 2020 on the history of the label, written by Tom Reardon, whose current band, the Father Figures, features JFA’s Michael Cornelius.
As they were digging through Beram’s storage unit, looking for items to photograph for Reardon’s story, the Record Room’s John Rose told Beram if he ever planned to empty out that unit, he would love to get somebody out to film it.
“I was like, ‘Why would you want to do that?!,” Beram says. “He goes, ‘Because people would be interested in that.’ I said, ‘Really? You think they’d be interested in that?'”
Then Reardon’s story published and Beram was shocked to see the kind words people had to say about him.
“You wouldn’t think so now, but when I was actually doing all the shows and putting out the records, I probably got as much negative feedback as I ever did positive feedback,” Beram says.
“That was part of what drove me out of it. I wasn’t making money, but I also wasn’t getting a whole bunch of praise. It was, ‘Why did you put this record out and not that one?’ ‘Why did you book this band?’ Just all kinds of petty complaints.”
He naturally assumed that’s what he’d find in Reardon’s story. More complaints.
“And it was like, ‘Oh, my God! All these people are saying these really nice things about Placebo and Mersey Productions and me? I was touched by a couple of things. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really nice,’ you know?”
More:Char’s got the Blues: The story of a legendary Phoenix nightclub
Building a Placebo Records archive and performance space
It changed a lot things he’d come to think about that chapter of his life. And this was during the pandemic shutdown, so he had a lot of time to think.
“It was the first time since I was 16 that I could sleep in,” he recalls with a laugh.
“I slept in for about a week and then I got bored. And once I was bored, all these ideas started to swirl around in my head.”
He knew he needed to come up with something that wouldn’t just feel like reliving the past.
A couple of his kids suggested doing something on the internet.
Then, one of the buildings his real estate company owns in downtown Phoenix became available when the tattoo parlor that was leasing it had to downsize due to COVID-19 rules.
So he redesigned the space to suit his needs, including a small stage.
“The idea is to get the things out of storage, archive them, sort them and store them correctly, label everything so that somebody doing an article would be able to do some real research and look at the items and photograph things,” Beram says.
“And if somebody wanted to do a book, they’d have a way to go through all this stuff.”
That’s part of the idea. The other part is adding to the archives with new interviews.
Beram points to the first of the label’s local-music compilations, 1982’s “Amuck.”
“If you were to make a list of every name that was involved with every band that’s on ‘Amuck,’ you would probably find that an inordinate percentage of them are dead now,” Beram says.
“So part of the idea was, ‘How do we get these folks before more of them die, ask the right questions to get them to pull up their recollections and film it all in a professional way to make a living record of that period of time in the Phoenix music scene?'”
Alan Bishop says the fact that we’ve already lost so many major player on that scene only makes it more vital “to get as much as you can as soon as possible.”
What to expect at Club Placebo Hootenanny
The Hootenanny is the first attempt to do so. The Bishops will also perform — both as a duo (the Brothers Unconnected, who last performed in February 2020) and individually (as Uncle Jim and Sir Richard Bishop).
Those performances will also be filmed and archived with the interviews.
In that way, Beram says, it’s possible to feel that they have one foot in the ’80s and the other foot in 2022.
Bishop says he’s looking forward to revisiting his days as a Placebo artist.
“I don’t know that I would want to do it every week or anything,” he says. “But it’ll be fun to do it and to see what comes of it. And just to be around everyone again is nice.”
It’s been a long run, Bishop says, and he’s still working on new music, so it’s hard to really put his own recorded history in perspective.
“Maybe if I was retired, I could go back in and really pay attention to it more and be more accurate about how I really feel,” he says. “But I don’t regret anything.”
One thing he does know is he’s grateful that Placebo took a chance on what Sun City Girls were trying to achieve at that point in their journey.
“I’m happy that there was able to be some kind of a jumpstart in Phoenix,” he says, “to be able to launch us into believing in ourselves enough to have the confidence to continue through all the adversities that hit you as you’re trying to make some kind of effort to create music or whatever in a field that isn’t popular.”
It’s Beram’s hope that any given Hootenanny could be every bit as memorable as a night at Mad Gardens, as the kids on the underground preferred to think of Madison Square Garden at 27th and Van Buren Streets, where Beram figures he promoted 80 to 100 concerts in the ’80s.
“It’s a lofty goal,” he says. “But that’s what we’re trying to do.”
There won’t be concerts every night — or even every week — at Club Placebo.
“We’re paying so much attention to detail for these evenings that I can’t see there being more than four a year or something like that,” Beram says.
He’d love to see Placebo’s most-recorded acts — Sun City Girls, Mighty Sphincter, JFA and David Oliphant — as the first four events.
“All those things are in the works,” he says.
“I’ve been in talks with JFA and Mighty Sphincter. I think all of that is gonna happen. But we want to make sure that we can present it in a way that the evening is memorable. It’s not something we can just throw together.”
‘I was kind of a pack rat’
Eventually, he’d like to use the space for events that are more like a gallery opening, where they could put some items in the archives on exhibit.
“I don’t think it’ll be possible to put everything on display because it’s a lot a lot more than people could ever imagine,” Beram says. “I was kind of a pack rat. I think every piece of fan mail that JFA ever received is in that storage unit somewhere.”
He’d love to get it to the point where they could run it more like a museum.
“That would mean staffing and stuff like that where you have to be open a lot,” he says. “But we could get there.”
In the meantime, he feels pretty good about the way things have been going.
“It’s neat going through old stuff and finding things you haven’t seen for a long, long time,” he says.
“It brings back memories. And it’s fun promoting again, especially now that I don’t have to worry as much about covering my expenses.”
A Club Placebo Hootenanny
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, March 12.
Where: Club Placebo, 119 W. McDowell Road, Phoenix.
Admission: Suggested donation of $20.
Details: 602-263-1111 ext. 9208, clubplacebo.com.
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.