At a lot of punk-rock gigs I can remember seeing back in the ’80s, the best (and funniest) part of the show was very often the banter between songs. There was The Mentors’ somewhat mentally deranged drummer, El Duce, charming the spitting and yelling audience with this heartfelt benediction: “This next song is called Havin’ My Baby! (cymbal-crash) An’ I hope … it’s a heroin babyyy!” El Duce was freakin’ hilarious.
Many a punk, goth-punk and post-punk song was, in fact, freakin’ hilarious. I mean intentionally. Just look at some of the song titles from that original late-’70s generation: New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones (Fear); Murder the Disturbed (The Circle Jerks); I’m a Loner With a Boner (Black Randy and the Metro Squad); I Hate Children (Adolescents); Goin’ Through Your Purse (The Mentors); My Old Man’s a Fatso (Angry Samoans) … why, the list is endless!
A goodly number of these early L.A. punk and hardcore records were released on Frontier Records, which stands today as L.A.’s oldest and longest-running punk label. Frontier is headquartered in North Hollywood, though originally based in semi-remote Sun Valley, when it was founded way back in 1980.
What’s most impressive about the whole Frontier enterprise is that the company has been run for the last several years by its founder Lisa Fancher, lifelong music fanatic, record collector and proud Valley native, aided by her "indispensable" label manager Julie Masi.
There’s no doubt that Fancher is one of the unsung heroines of L.A. punk history. For decades she’s been quietly and unrelentingly productive, a committed keeper of the archives who has managed to keep her label afloat and thriving and preserving the legacy.
On that point, let it be noted here how lame it is that some recent histories of L.A. punk, including specialized books and conferences on “women in punk,” make no mention of Fancher or Frontier. But as the punk history industry rambles along, the number of influential albums that were released on L.A.’s Frontier will increasingly be noted.
That includes records that defined L.A. punk's first generation: the eponymous Adolescents LP (with the band name split in half on the cover, so that it appears to read as Adolf Scents), and the very first records by Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies, Christian Death and Redd Kross.
In recent years Frontier’s m.o. has included reissuing old classics from other labels: standouts include the legendary clear-vinyl post-punk compilation Yes L.A. from 1980, with its classic cuts from the much-loved (and collectible) Dangerhouse label. “We made it in the same four colors as the original,” says Fancher, ardent record collector. “Because we are nerds."
Fancher lives in a ’50s modernist house on a quiet, leafy suburban block in North Hollywood, not far from a sleepy stretch of Ventura Boulevard.
It’s a dream bachelorette pad inside, filled with vintage advertising items, kitschy product statuettes and giant color ads covering the walls of every room.
She brings out a gleaming new vinyl copy of the Frontier reissue of Black Randy & the Metro Squad’s classic 1980 LP, Pass the Dust, I Think I’m Bowie, and puts it on the Technics turntable. It takes me back to how downright greasy a voice Black Randy had, sounding like one of those Baltimore-accented narrators in the early John Waters films (much like a young perthon who hath no teeth):
“They say the Boulevard ith’ no plathe’ to be!/Pinball n’ coffee are alright with me! I can’t live a-lewwn, 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 my dick…”
(Fancher writes on the label’s website: “He still has no peers, amen to that.”)
Fancher started her music career working at the long-gone L.A. record stores that locals of a certain age remember with great fondness, including Bomp Records and Licorice Pizza in North Hollywood: "We were the punk-rock store, with Cliff from the Weirdos, Kid Congo, Don Snowden and members of the Quick all working there.”
In her early 20s she published her own music fanzines, Street Life and Biff! Bang! Pow!, and wrote concert reviews for the L.A. Times ("I was fired by Robert Hilburn for being too enthusiastic!") and the old Herald Examiner.
In high school she loved Bowie and Mott the Hoople (“still do”), and she enjoyed annoying other kids by broadcasting Roxy Music and other then-underground rock bands over the loudspeakers during lunch: “People had their hands over their ears. Everybody was like, ‘Turn this shit off!’”
Her obsession with music (“I was already collecting records at 8 or 9”) and her go-it-alone stubbornness resulted in the founding of Frontier. The label’s first record was a 12-inch EP by a group called The Flyboys, “which was an utter and complete stiff,” she says, “’because the band broke up before it was released.”
In the early ’80s, things got hardcore fast when Fancher/Frontier “scored the first Circle Jerks LP,” before unleashing more sonic harshness by bands like Adolescents, Christian Death, TSOL, China White and Suicidal Tendencies. She rode the wave, putting out albums and making record deals, quite literally making the scene in L.A., then moving from hardcore to the Paisley Underground sound of the Three O'Clock and Long Ryders.
But “the late ’80s were hard times, of course, when the music biz collapsed. … I got stiffed by distributors, blah blah. ... At one point (earlier), I had two offices. Then by ’92, it was just me.” Not good. “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. One for the memoirs!” At this point, she says, the label was “on life support.”
But Frontier survived and revived. Fancher is “still reissuing vintage punk material, some remastered Thin White Rope LPs, and I’m releasing a Stimulators EP (they were the first New York City hardcore band).”
So a lot is happening now. “Mostly this is a reissue label. … I’m the punk rock Rhino” (as in Rhino Records).
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As disc after disc plays, I am moved to mention the obvious: that rude and nasty ol’ punk is and always was beyond politically incorrect, and that that’s a good enough reason to go back and listen to it, to suck it up.
Fancher, a wiseacre who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, concurs.
“Try listening to the Adolescents’ ‘No Way,’” she offers, helpfully, when I bring up the current phobia of so-called “offensiveness.” I wonder out loud: How many college kids today just love the Mentors?
There is no doubt, in retrospect, that the original punk generation, audience and musicians, were a tough bunch: they reveled in being so-called offensive, and they laughed about it.
At this point Fancher mentions she now has her “very own” streaming radio station, so I have to ask: What are the call letters? Says Lisa Fancher with a grin, “KXFU!”