This particular feature has been a long time coming. When I was a freshman in high school I heard a Peace Corpse song on Kathy and Shrub’s radio show on our high school radio station. The song was called “Jocko Macho” and I was an instant fan. I used to record their shows because my lack of income and lack of means to find and buy punk records at the time left me no choice. You see back then there was no internet where you can find anything with a couple of clicks and punk rock was still so new and so unacceptable to mainstream society that it took a special kind of record store to stock such things so when you are 13 years old, discovering punk rock bands and getting their records wasn’t an easy task.
Eventually my friend Spanky brought in a Toxic Shock records catalog that he swiped from his brother and it was like discovering the Holy Grail for me. There were pages and pages of punk records for sale including the 7″ EP from Peace Corpse that I so desperately wanted for my very own. Until then I was eventually able to score a cassette recording of the EP from my friend Mick Calhoun, who at the time had more punk records than just about anyone. I talked my mom into writing me a check and buying me some records and a few weeks later the precious little gem was in my hands and I played it every day. It is now 25 years later and I still play that record on a regular basis. I loved everything from the music down to the Pushead illustrated sleeve, it was one of those perfect hardcore punk EPs in my eyes.
It turned out that the founder and singer of Peace Corpse was none other than Bill Sassenberger, who also ran Toxic Shock records (the store and the label). The man has supported the punk rock since its birth and still does today at his Toxic Ranch Records store in Tuscon, AZ. His label put out a lot of great punk records over the years and his store put records in my home on quite a few occasions during my teenage years. I’ve been pestering Bill for a couple years now to share his story about Peace Corpse (and to a lesser degree Toxic Shock) and he finally delivered the goods. Go grab a snack and sit down because this is a pretty long one.
Toxic Shock Records was born sometime in the summer of 1980 on a fairly nondescript street in suburban Pomona, CA and in a tiny corner shop wedged between a hair salon and a car repair shop, across from a Der Weinersnitzel hot dog stand. Pomona was mostly known for the annual L.A. County fair and because of that for decades it was the butt of jokes from the likes of William Holden and Jack Benny. It was this “hick” town that was the honeymoon destination choice for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who knows why. Maybe they ran out of gas on the way to Palm Springs? I knew I couldn’t compete with the bigger, trendier record stores in glitzy Hollywood out here in drab Pomona, with its ugly suburban sprawl and a decaying historic district, but I was hoping by refusing to carry major labels, and being forced to stay within the limits of my tiny start-up budget I could find a niche catering to the local malcontents. Instead of carrying the obvious punk superstars, the Clash and Sex Pistols, I tried to offer a meager selection of lesser known, local Southern California independent labels like Dangerhouse, SST, Upsetter, Slash, Frontier, Posh Boy, plus some other west coast labels like Subterranean, distributor Systematic from San Francisco and Friends Records from Vancouver B.C., plus a few things from New York. I also stocked a few UK imports on Industrial Records, Rough Trade, 4AD, Malicious Damage, Crass,and Stiff, all on vinyl, naturally. I rounded it out with a smattering of punk/new wave related punk merchandise.
The lowly shop with the melting red and black Toxic Shock sign painted on the glass exterior would attract people mainly by word of mouth, and the curiosity seekers would root around the record bins, read magazines on the couch, and help me fill up the ashtray with cigarette butts. Since I lived in the back of the store, the business hours were never set in stone and the door would be open until late at night. People would just hang out and listen to whatever was on my turntable at the time, which could be the Fall, Blurt, D.O.A., Bauhaus, Flipper, Magazine, Minimal Man, Cabaret Voltaire, the Residents, Throbbing Gristle, the Plasmatics or Saccharine Trust, depending on my mood. At the time, none of it was radio friendly and the suburbs had a small, but steadily increasing amount of people who were hungry for more than what was currently being offered at the big chain record mega stores. One of these people would be my future wife, Julianna, who would bring her sister over with a bottle of wine, so they could escape the stifling confines of their mother’s authority for awhile.
Pomona was a bit isolated from the whole Hollywood scene, being a good 60 minute ride on the freeway from Los Angeles itself and another 45 minutes north of Orange County, where droves of teen suburbanite punks were now growing in numbers, creating lots of violence and destruction not only in hip Hollywood venues like the Whisky and the Starwood, but also beach haunts like the Cuckoos Nest and the Fleetwood. Out in the eastern outskirts of L.A. County, Pomona, we had a few bands start up in the area, such as the Dull, and Modern Industry from just over the hill in Covina to our west, Kent State and the Stepmothers hailed from Ontario to our immediate east and Manson Youth who came from the real boonies, Chino, to our north. They had cows grazing, out there in Chino. Pomona itself, had only a metal/punk band called Bondage, who were a bunch of macho coke-heads, Although we had nothing like the beach gang violence that followed bands like T.S.O.L. and Black Flag, there was some petty rivalry between the towns, like fistfights at backyard parties.
The closest thing we had to a live music venue in Pomona was Arts Building, run by a mild-mannered arts enthusiast named appropiately enough, Art. Just about any artist in the area could get an art showing there and a band could get a gig there just by giving Art a phone call. The space was so tiny that a crowd of a dozen music fans could be considered a sell out show. This led me to thinking some bigger shows could be brought to Pomona, if only there was a cheap to rent building somewhere. In early 1981 that somewhere turned out to be the P.A.L. Boxing Gym, a huge dilapidated old building where the boxing platform would be disassembled and converted to a space for a stage. After renting a PA system and selling tickets at Toxic Shock, soon bands like China White, Adolescents, Middle Class and Social Distortion would come up from O.C. and other bands like the Cheifs, Rik L Rik, Bad Religion and and even true out-of-towners like the Red Rockers from New Orleans and the Subhumans from Canada would also headline shows there. I remember when all the members of Black Flag came to see their friends the Subhumans, from Vancouver before sharing a bill with them later that week at a rented hall in L.A. After four well-attended shows organized at the boxing gym, we finally got ourselves banned from the gym due to some overly rambunctious “music fans” tearing all the plumbing from the bathroom walls.
After that venture, I tried to concentrate more on the shop, and placed a couple classified ads in rock magazines Trouser Press and Rolling Stone for a mail-order catalog and I got flooded with requests, which kept me busier at the shop, once some catalogs finally got mailed off. George Belanger, Jay and James McGearty would also be among the hangers on at the shop and they would tell me of this new band they were starting with Roger, (who had by now changed his name to Rozz Williams. Despite his claims that it originated from a gravestone, I figured years later he most likely stole his new moniker from Ricky Williams of the Sleepers, a great little obscure San Francisco band) and it was going to be called Christian Death. One of George and James catch phrases went something like “that’s Spa, dude!” , a reference to anything they considered gay or stupid, so I was a little surprised to hear of their association with Rozz, who was known to sometimes frequent the restrooms at a public park along with Ron Athey as male prostitutes for drug money. I know they used to get their kicks stealing flowers from the local cemetery and supposedly they stole some gravestones as well, which is hard to believe considering how physically frail Rozz was. Maybe George was talked into being the actual culprit, as he was a strong drummer and a fairly big guy. George was a cool kid though, finding out he was a fan of Keith Moon, we got along just fine. James and Jay were a bit more secretive, aloof and coy. They all seemed to have high hopes that their new band was going to go places, at the very least get them out of Pomona on weekends.
At some point, Ron Athey made the shop’s couch a regular pit stop where he could listen to the latest Throbbing Gristle 12″ , between his rounds of hustling Holt Ave for dope money. Again, being the naive anarchist at heart, with no particular homophobic hang ups and finding out both of us were TG fans, I saw no harm in him hanging around. I would joke with him when I thought certain bands were too dramatic or cheesy, and tag them as having too much “Bowie damage”. A highlight for me that year was seeing Throbbing Gristle live in Culver City, the day before their last performance in San Francisco. Chuck Dukowski (of Black Flag) opened the show with his concept troupe, SWA and Vox Pop also played that night.
Sometime in the summer of 1981, I noticed a “for rent” sign at a much bigger building just 2 stores down from us, that used to be an appliance store that came complete with an air conditioning showroom, separate back rooms with a kitchen area and real bathroom with a shower. It was, naturally more rent,but I took a gamble with business seemingly improving. Small labels were putting out records that were selling like crazy. For awhile, we were selling a box of 50 Circle Jerks albums a week , with Adolescents debut LP, Black Flags “Jealous Again” 12 ” EP, Angry Samoans “Inside My Brain” 12″ and Rodney on the Roq compilations were hot on their heels flying out the door. As punk rock was getting more and more accessible to the masses thanks in part to more radio exposure, the release of Decline of Western Civilization in the theatres and fanzines like Flipside. There was no Internet, it was word of mouth and flyers picked up at shows and record shops like ours, Zed’s in Long Beach, and Poobah in Pasadena. Ron Athey helped persuade me that the move was a good idea when he said he would pitch in by renting out one of the rooms with the help of Rozz, as well as help take care of customers. So we walked our stuff over in boxes down the sidewalk and into our new digs.
I recall when Rozz and Ron invited all their creepy little friends from Hollywood over for a party at the store and how alienated I felt by their presense as the night dragged on. The building filled with strange faces and amplifying chatter and cackels of laughter. I spent most of the night on the roof waiting for daylight to arrive. It probably didn’t help matters that I was high on LSD at the time. Other drugs and decadence would regularly occupy Ron and Rozz’ room, as they often had their personal plaything, a kid from Ontario, hanging from a rope while they took turns whipping him between heating their spoons with candles. The smell of melting wax was omnipresent. I myself, had a pretty low opinion of heroin, as I considered it, along with speed, a death drug. One day at our kitchen table, while he was working on the artwork for “Theatre of Pain”, Rozz was admiring an album cover (T.S.O.L.’s “Dance with Me”) he had gotten from Frontier. He told me he liked the artwork better than the music. For me, it was the exact opposite.
Living with the two R’s got weirder still, when Ron found a dead cat hit by a car and stored it in our freezer, because he wanted to use it for an upcoming “performance art” thing he was planning with Rozz at Arts Building. I had seen Christian Death’s debut show in Ontario the previous December, where the big “sensation” was Rozz appearing onstage in a white wedding dress. Other than George’s powerhouse drumming, the band seemed lackluster. They hadn’t yet developed their sound which Rick Agnew would flesh out later on. I was underwhelmed at best on that night, and skipped their show supporting 45 Grave at Art’s Bldg in January, but I was a little curious as to what would transpire at this other “Premature Ejaculation” event. Can’t say I was glad I went, because by the time they pulled the defrosted cat out of the bag and Ron proceeded to tear the carcass apart with his hands and teeth, the smell in the room was disgusting, and I for one failed to see what the artistic statement was in this exhibition of depravity. I also remembered how gleefully Ron relayed a story to me when he bragged that he got the local coke dealer (the singer in the band Bondage) so high, that he was able to flip him over and rape him in the ass without him being aware of what was going on. I was beginning to realize I really didn’t want these two as roomates any longer. Especially as a few months had gone by and the promised help with rent had failed to materialize. I also started noticing our store inventory was shrinking and money wasnt being accounted for the sales made whenever I wasn’t behind the counter.
By this time, Julianna had also moved in and was trying to help me keep our mail-order business organized and afloat as our walk-in traffic was dwindling, In spite of our efforts, we were falling behind on rent payments and utility bills. My generosity was quickly turning to animosity, fueled by finding a huge chunk of my personal record collection in Rozz and Ron’s room, when they were out scoring drugs. We decided something had to be done and quickly, so after being left empty handed once again when we asked for help on our delinquent rent, the next time the pair went out galavanting, we took all their belongings out of their room and put them outside the rear entrance and locked the door. A few days went by peacefully enough, until a loud, crashing sound awoke us one late morning. Our neighbors were able to I.D. both Rozz and gal pal Mary jumping out of their car and smashing our storefront windows before they jumped back in and dashed away. We had no money to repair the glass, so we boarded it up and went back to trying to regain our customers that we lost over the previous months and doing our best to keep our utilities from being shut off. With a few phone calls, we organized a benefit show Oct 22 1981 at a club out in Riverside. Eddie and the Subtitles, the Abandoned, Social Distortion, Manson Youth and Red Brigade played to help raise money to keep Toxic Shock from closing down. We had also started a band, with myself on vocals, Julianna on guitar, our friend Scott on bass and we borrowed the drummer of Manson Youth. We had worked out a short set of songs that included a couple Flesheaters cover songs and some original material, including “Horror Snores” and came up with a band name, Moslem Birth. With white pancake make-up, black wigs, eyeliner, plastic jack-o-lanterns and a couple styrofoam tombstones, we were soon ready to play our debut show at Art’s Building! The few people who showed up were treated to a messy set of seethingly sarcastic “goth/punk”. It would be our one and only live performance. A couple years later, “Horror Snores” would be resurrected on vinyl.
Before too long, with our phone disconnected, our electricity shut off and no inventory left to attract any customers, we were finally forced to close down Toxic Shock. We spent the next year running the mail-order business out of a spare bedroom and working at the local smoke shop. The owners decided they wanted to sell off their shop and since we easily could make weekly payments until it was paid off, we were soon owners of a truly profitable business. There were some legal hassles though, with undercover cops always trying to bust us for selling drug paraphenalia. They finally succeded, but not before we were able to set aside enough money to re-open Toxic Shock Records in a new location, in the “Antique Mall” in downtown Pomona. Thanks to the money made serving the needs of thousands of potheads and coke fiends, this time our inventory at the record store was much expanded. Inspired by the work ethic and tenacity of the people behind SST and Subterreanean, this time I knew it was going to work. My dealings with all the indie labels of the time had grown immensely and not only was our international mail-order business booming, but we also became a full fledged wholesale distributor ourselves, selling to other record shops around the country! One of the few records we refused to stock was “Only Theatre of Pain”. We simply ignored Christian Death and had no interest in promoting any Rozz related project.
We were itching however to start our own record label, which we also called Toxic Shock and for our first release we put together a 7″ EP, titled Noise from Nowhere, a compilation featuring 4 area bands, Kent State, Modern Industry, Manson Youth and Moslem Birth. I always liked the 4 bands on one 7″ record concept that Subterranean had done with the SF Underground series. Although Moslem Birth wasn’t an active band, it did quickly morph into Peace Corpse, but not before documenting “Horror Snores” in the studio. This time Julianna played guitar, I “sang” and Tracy Garcia (of East L.A. pre-Goth band Thee Undertakers played the drums, his girlfriend Angie on bass. Noise from Nowhere was graced by the infamous “exploding penis” artwork provided by my penpal from Boise, Brian “Pushead” Schroeder, who would later also design the sleeve for our Peace Corpse Quincy 7″ EP.
Looking back, I wouldn’t say I was all that impressed with the early L.A. goth scene. Outside of 45 Grave, who were far more entertaining because they at least were campy and had a sense of humor, most of these bands seem contrived outside of a Halloween night costume party. Far more interesting bands with a goth edge would service later in Arizona with Mighty Sphincter and in San Francisco with the Toiling Midjits, not to overlook Scratch Acid in Austin. But, just like the “bat-cave” movement in the U.K., goth/punk in LA came off as just plain silly. Some people like Rozz and Patrick Mata of Kommunity Fk couldn’t turn their Bowie damaged art into a pot o’ gold where the likes of a Perry Ferrell of Psi-Com/Janes’s Addiction and Valor Kand of Christian Death (phase two) certainly could. Seeing the tiny insular “Goth” scene evolve over the decades to become this huge fashion and music industry never fails to amaze me, as evidenced by the glut of goth drek as cranked out by the likes of Projekt.
When I think of all the legal troubles and frustration Rozz had to contend with over the years regarding the rights to the name of Christian Death and to see other people making money off his creation, I could only think to myself, “couldn’t happen to a nicer guy”. What can I say about my own band PEACE CORPSE? We had fun poking fun at the absurdities of the time including the media’s stereotypes of punk culture, with shows such as “C.H.I.P.S.” and “Quincy” that exaggerated the dangers of punk rock as a lifestyle.
After a bad experience recording at this hippie dude’s studio, we even got some test pressings made before scraping the project, we started over, recorded 7 songs at Casbah Studio in Fullerton by Chas Ramirez at who also recorded Social Distortion and Adolescents early stuff. “Breach Birth Generation” ended up on the Barricaded Suspects compilation LP and the rest documented our 6 song Quincy 7″EP. We managed to play several shows in L.A.’s suburbs,(we opened for both the F.U.’s and Die Kreuzen!) driving up to San Francisco to play with Social Unrest at the On Broadway and Toxic Reasons at the Tool’n’Die on Valencia, as part of the “Noise from Nowhere” package with Kent State and Modern Industry.
Peace Corpse – Quincy EP (1984 Toxic Shock Records)
We can also claim to have opened up for Black Flag, at the July 4th Legalize Marijuana rally held in front of the Federal Building 1984?, although Ginn/Rollins didn’t actually speak to us, or even look at us, it looked good on our punk rock resume! We even ventured up to Las Vegas for a well received show with Decry, who we also toured with later on (after Tracy and Angie had left the band), with gigs strung together in Phoenix (with Mighty Sphincter, our heroes!), Santa Fe New Mexico (Hunting Lodge was supposed to play, but didn’t) , Denver (with Utah’s Massacre Guys), St Louis (with Blind Idiot God), Bloomington, Indiana (I dont remember who else played, but the kids were doing the “worm” between the stoves and refrigerators as we played in an abandoned appliance store) and finally Cleveland (opened for the Pink Holes in a former strip club) where our tour would ended abruptly, as we had to head back to California due to lack of funds. We never made it to Chicago, where we were scheduled to play the Metro or Virginia Beach VA, where we had received a decent amount of fan mail.
The later Peace Corpse years are somewhat embarassing when we began to take ourselves too seriously due to a line-up change (please steer clear of our Terror of History 12″!), but the Neil Young cover from the ill-fated Budget Ranch box set (delayed for at least a year with only 350 made of the intended 1000) is worth looking for. The band dissolved after our final tour, as we found it just wasn’t much fun anymore. Our bass player went on to join Pillsbury Hardcore (who covered “Horror Snores” on the Budget Ranch Box) and later formed Man is the Bastard. Julianna and I formed a fun project with Mark Erskine (of Savage Republic) called Zimbo Chimps. We recorded a 7″ and played one show, then broke up! Julianna would release 3 solo albums in the early ’90’s under the name Skinnerbox, not to be confused with the NYC ska band.
I think Bill is a little too hard on the Terror of History EP. I was a little bummed when it came out that it sounded so different but I ended up liking exactly half of it, and still listen to those songs that I do like from it fairly often even now, two decades later. It was the tracks from the Budget Ranch Box that I really didn’t care for (which is why I didn’t bother to include any here). I remember ordering that box set and waiting nearly a year for it to arrive!
I’d like to thank Bill for sending over the history and for his substantial contribution to the world of punk rock not just with his store and mailorder, but for his band that meant a whole lot to me when I was growing up.